Cover Image: Chain Gang All Stars

Chain Gang All Stars

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Member Reviews

Thanks to Pantheon and NetGalley for the chance to read and review Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah's 'Chain Gang All Stars.'

In the not terribly distant future, the prison-industrial complex has gamified punishment and possible redemption by introducing a gladiatorial competition where convicted (wrongly or rightly) fight to the death in front of a global and immersed audience.

Shades of Stephen King's 'The Running Man,' Suzanne Collins' 'The Hunger Games,' and Netflix's 'Squid Games abound but the focus here is on the predominance of people of color thrown into the penal system and, by extension, the 'games.'

It takes what's still actually happening - the disproportionate imprisonment of people of color and the exploitation of the imprisoned for labour and profit - and turns it up to 11.

The ant-games movement is analogous to any one of the social justice movements we know today so is completely believable.

There's also the battle within the individual competitors who continue to enjoy the spoils of success and hope to earn their freedom while deploring how they're trying to achieve those goals.
I'm writing this review after the shocking collapse of an NFL player, live on camera, in a recent game. Shock and horror were expressed but the next game happened and the shock and horror will fade and be rationalized. In Chain Gang All Stars, just as the exploitation of prisoners is taken to the nth degree, the audience's indifference to death and suffering on screen has also reached the point where they don't care until the see a non-combatant involved - but they're quickly whipped back up into a frenzy by the MC and the demands of the mighty dollar.

Unfortunately, given where we've come from and where we are in society, culture, and politics - this future is all too believable. The inclusion of footnotes and references to real cases of the abuses suffered by people of color by the criminal justice establishment just makes it all the more plausible.

Powerful stuff.

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I honestly didn’t read any excerpts or descriptions about this book before reading. I’d seen it on at least 10 “Most Anticipated 2023 book” lists, and that alone was why I was so excited to read this one.

Chain-Gang All Stars felt like a mixture of Hunger Games, Gladiator, and Orange is the New Black all rolled into one very heavy, violent and explosive read. It is a powerful critique of the US’s prison system, along with the profit and racism inherent within them. Prisoners who receive a sentence of 25+ years or who are given the death penalty are offered the option to enroll in a three-year program that may result in their freedom. The program is a gladiator-style hard-action sports team in which prisoners are expected to murder opponents in order to advance to the next level of the game. This book is so brilliant because it’s all so believable - these prisoners are basically competing in gruesome public death matches streamed live to the entire world.

My reasoning for 4 stars and not 5 was two-fold. First, I was at times slightly confused by the intense shifting of perspectives to different characters. Second was the footnotes at the end of each chapter. Much of the info in those footnotes was profound, describing factual evidence about the horrors and realities of the US prison system. However, at many times while I read, these footnotes proved to distract from the story itself.

Overall, this book was unlike any other I’ve read. The story was smart and original in a way I haven’t read before, the characters were very flushed out and I felt connected to many of them, and I know I will continue to think about this book throughout the rest of the year. This story would also make for a gripping limited series, one that I would be eager to watch.

Thank you to Net Galley for the advanced copy.

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Not only was this my first read of the year, BUT this was also my first NetGalley book EVER!

In this dystopian world, prisoners are given the opportunity to fight for their freedom through death matches. These fights to the death are televised, popular, and gruesome, and the general public idolizes those criminals that perform well.

The author does an amazing job of forcing the reader to examine and reflect on the treatment of prisoners in this country. While we don’t hold televised death matches, we are quick to dismiss the humanity of criminals. Summarily, these fights to the death are justified because the prisoners are seen to deserve whatever they have coming to them.

This is an excellent read if you like dystopian worlds and are passionate about criminal justice reform. I found this perspective thought-provoking and believe the world created in this book could someday be a reality if we continue to judge people by the worst thing they’ve ever done.

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As other reviews say, this is a very specific type of book for a specific type of person. I think that those who it resonates with really really enjoy it. It's different because it's more sci-fi but also mixed with some gladiator vibes. Overall it was an interesting read, I think i'm still processing it but I would recommend giving it a chance! Thanks to the publisher for an early copy!

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It’s like gladiator and death race had a baby. Still not sure if I liked or truly understood it’s deeper meaning. I hope it finds its home, but I would really have a hard time helping it find one.

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A really interesting concept. What the author proposes is essentially that which happened in Ancient Rome where gladiators, who were criminals/prisoners, fought to the death, with the victor going on to collect fame and fortune as he progressed through the trials, ultimately gaining back his freedom should he survive for a certain amount of years. The difference in this novel is that the author brings this concept into the 21st century and sets it in the USA.

I liked that the author stayed on the right side of the line when it came to not making us, as readers, empathise too much with the characters, who ultimately are criminals. Had they not been offered the chance of survival by participating in the games, they would've been given the death penalty for their crimes, arguably the justice they deserved. They represent the lowest of the low in our society, having committed some of the worst acts known to man, namely rape and murder. Subsequently, I would've had a tough time if we had been led to empathise with such characters by the author, but thankfully this is not the case.

The most original part of the concept is that the criminals are microchipped with magnets in their wrists which cause them pain when they make noise (speak, cry, etc.), this is in order to control them. The imagery of this is particularly powerful in the wake of the recent political protests in the Middle East which highlight once again how powerful voices can be.

This is a morally complex novel and some readers will struggle with the fact that these criminals- who (if they survive) gain freedom, fame and fortune by competing in the games- will go down in history forever and will re-enter society, whilst the names of their victims are entirely forgotten and their lives extinguished. In fact, if I remember rightly, the name of not one of their victims is mentioned throughout the entire novel, perhaps done deliberately by the author to highlight this theme that has been in the spotlight recently with the publication of Chanel Miller's 'Know My Name' and its takedown of the media coverage of criminal trials that often overlooks the victims.

It certainly is a fantastic idea for a dystopian novel and the comparisons that have been made to The Hunger Games are legitimate. Also, hats off to the world building which is competent, thorough and quickly established.

Overall, an entertaining read that I hope will do well in the upcoming series of book awards in 2023.

This would also be a fantastic book club book as it will spark unending amounts of debate and perspectives.

2.5/3 points for concept
2.5/3 points for writing
2/3 points for enjoyment
0/1 point for feeling/moved
= 7/10 (3.5/5*)

(thank you to NetGalley for gifting me an e-ARC of the novel)

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I've never read anything quite like this novel. Adjei-Brenyah's first book FRIDAY BLACK was a thrilling debut, the arrival of a voice both fully formed and headed out into uncharted territories -- and hot damn if he doesn't deliver something special with his first novel. The book had me cheering and weeping, unable to tear my eyes from the page even as I might've wanted to look away -- even as I would look away, if CAPE was real. The book manages to be both furious and grounded, a clarion cry against the inhumanities of the carceral state in this country and an intimate look at second chances. There is real love here, and there is unbelievable violence, and there is everything in between. Most of all, I don't see how you can read this and not want to work to change our society for the better. Do it for Loretta, do it for Staxxx, do it for all those whose names you don't know or won't know.

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This is one of my first automatic recommends of 2023. I ended up tearing through this in the space of two days. Would again classify this as African soc-fi, because while it's not automatically a rosy view of the future, it focuses on the role of the community, abolition, and support in the prisoners' lives and how that plays out against the speculative fiction aspect of the story. The pitch of this book is that in the nearish future, the prison industrial complex has found a way to not only optimize nerve pain via electric shock as punishment and also to introduce gladitatorial death games as a league sport with the lure of freedom at its end, streamed to the masses. Two middle aged female prisoners are competitors, teammates, lovers, and close to possibly being freed, but little do they know the effect the death of a teammate and an upcoming rules change will have on them. The focus of this novel kaleidoscopes from the miniscule in scope (footnotes that focus on the prisoners' crimes and sentences and the various injustices of the actual prison industrial complex), the emails Thurwar has in her inbox from her "fans", and the wife of a fan who slowly becomes entranced by the league, all the way up to the person who invented the nerve pain system in her quest to eliminate pain and finds it misused by the company that funds her research, and members of the Board, and shows you how it all weaves together. Plus, it's rare that authors will choose to focus on middle aged lesbians, but we do here. And at the end of it, the writer doesn't exonerate the league audience or the reader for being a part of this story, in any way. Pick this up when it comes out in April. You're going to be hearing lots about this and the author, I think.

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This is definitely going to appeal to a specific audience. It drops you into the action immediately and then just keeps going, and you may or may not make it out alive..

I'd hazard to say it's more speculative fiction than science fiction.

Thank you to NetGalley and Pantheon for the ARC.

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TW/CW: Violence, murder, suicide, sexual assault, state-sanctioned violence, torture, brutality, sex, language

REVIEW: I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley and am voluntarily writing an honest review.

Chain-Gang All Stars is a sort of Hunger Games for an adult audience. But while Hunger Games only vaguely touches at ideas of race and inequality, Chain-Gang All Stars embraces that and makes it a central theme of this book. And it works. This is an incredibly powerful book. In Chain-Gang All Stars we follow several groups of prisoners who have joined into a ‘hard-action sports’ team in which they are expected to fight to the death against other prisoners. The far-off dream is that if any one prisoner survives for thirty-six months, they will be freed. As of the start of this book, that has only happened once.

This book does an excellent job of showing how the prisoners have been completely dehumanized by the normal people wagering and watching them on television or in the stands. It does a fantastic job of showing us the inequality in the prison system, and how much worse it could become if we don’t do something to fix it.

Most of all, this book does exactly what good speculative fiction or science fiction should do – it shows us our world as it could be and begs us to fix it before it becomes the horror the book tells us of.

This is one of the best books I’ve read all year, and I highly recommend.

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DNF'd this NetGalley at around the 60% mark.

At first I was really enjoying it. I liked the premise and the themes and the first couple of characters introduced. But I liked it less and less until giving up, for two main reasons:

- The shifting of perspectives to different characters and time periods is handled in a confusing way. There were 3 POV characters I could readily identify, and 1-3 more that I could not distinguish. Every time I started a new chapter it would take me several pages to orient myself.

- The dystopian themes started off as interesting texture to the world but ended up feeling like I was being bludgeoned by a criminal justice hammer. There was a footnote about a real life woman near the halfway point that was intended to enrage the reader about the system's injustices. I spent about 10 minutes reading about her case and was frustrated about how the book left zero room for nuance.

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Well this was certainly different. I love the concept and the issues it raises, and I appreciate the reasoning of the author. Admittedly, it has made me question my own beliefs on the subject, even if in the end, I disagree with the authors conclusions.

I found the way in which it's set up pleasing and unlike some people, I was okay with being thrown straight into this alternate imagining. Maybe because it's very close to our current world, just a little technically advanced, it was easy for me and I didn't need additional world building.

So why not the 5 stars I was so hoping to give? Characterisation. Put simply, I didn't like Thurwar. To be frank, I didn't really gel with any of the main characters and found, somewhat horrifyingly, that Craft was the most interesting.
The whole chain gang thing was really good and I liked how the group were becoming a family and I wouldn't have minded more focus on that, but it was too much about Thurwar and Staxx and yet at the same time, told me very little. Then they rushed the Craft story and for some weird reason, changed the timeline so it was all happening year or so before and just said the wife was watching old streams to make up for the time gap. And what about the melee? Like here was a moment to build on that family vibe and show the difference between the chain gangs, but no, over in a matter of lines. They spent more time running to it than fighting. And this is why I can't give it 5 stars, and right now I'm writing this thinking, should I give 4 as I've just realised, this really bothered me. There was so much to develop and yet the wrong bits were developed. And the author kept throwing things in and then rushing them, like Craft, Singer, The Wife and the Dr woman. And please, what was Singers part all about? Why the strange dialect or writing style? It made him sound too simple and almost stupid.

And then there is the end. Well, after all of that, you get Craft in a ring with Thurwar and end it in a paragraph or two and then just put the women in a ring and bam.

I read other reviews, and I was really excited about this, but for me, it was under developed and there was too much focus on Thurwar and Staxx but not the important stuff like who they really were. If the author wanted to make us question the penal system they should have delved into their lives and created a dilemma. Instead, they brushed over their past on an attempt I assume, to make me see them as victims when the issue is never that black and white, just like the author says herself in the foreword.
This would have been better as a trilogy with some real development and character building. Sorry, I know this goes against the grain. 3.8

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YESSSSSSSSSS. This is the best book I’ve read this year. It actually comes out next year, and I look forward to also saying it’s the best book of 2023. It has all the clever, cutting world-building of Friday Black, plus the nuance and depth that comes with novel length. I still can’t believe this is technically a debut. The darkly satirical little details? The emotion and realness in damn near every POV? The tenacity with which Adjei-Brenyah explores absolute bleakness without getting heavy-handed? Front to back, I’m floored. I’ll be thinking about this one for a while. (I got an ARC from NetGalley.)

Pairs well with: Abolition. Feminism. Now. by Angela Davis or We Do This Til We Free Us by Mariame Kaba

A+

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I usually wait much closer to pub date to read/review books, however I just couldn't resist opening Chang Gang All Stars as soon as I received it. Put this on your list of 2023 must reads ASAP.

Chain Gang All Stars imagines a future/reality where prisoners partake in Criminal Action Penal Entertainment (CAPE). CAPE is essentially bringing back gladiators. Prisoners must spar with one another until one dies and the other has another win, getting them one step closer to freedom. In this book, we fellow several prisoners and also dip briefly into the minds of those upholding this system.

I keep trying to fight off a comparison to The Hunger Games because this book is so much more than that, though there are definite similarities. Chain Gang All Stars has a whole lot to say on mass incarceration, for profit prisons, and systemic racism. All of this is very thinly veiled, Adjei-Brenyah does not make you work to understand his views, they are right in your face. What the reader then needs to do is unpack the layers and deeply reflect on our current systems. I became incredibly invested in some of the characters, and was breathless at the end waiting to see what was going to happen. It felt a little icky to feel entertained reading this book as the spectators in the book are absolutely villains and that's the point. I'll be thinking about this one for a long time, and will share more thoughts closer to publication on April 4th, but for now, I highly recommend pre-ordering!

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I just finished a reread of his debut short story collection, this was one of my most highly anticipated upcoming releases, so when I got an email from Net Galley that it was available to read for 3 days I immediately downloaded it.

Adjei-Brenyah has said that his stories "operate right in that space between familiar and hyperbole" and he is right there again with this brutal near future where imprisoned people battle gladiator/Hunger Games/Squid Games style for their freedom.

It's hard to even put into words what this book accomplishes. The story jumps from various POV's, there are those in the prison system, those participating in the battle "program", spectators and fans, board members calling the shots, and protestors of the brutal system. There are a lot of moving parts in the story, but each adds so much, and how they intertwine is so well done and incredible to see unfold. Throughout the book there are footnotes that add to the narrative or are informational, the way they pull you out of the story never allows you to forget that what you're reading may be science fiction, but it is firmly based in real world politics. Somehow while all of this is happening we are still given so many incredible characters, a queer love story, and an epic ending you can't predict.

This book is truly an incredible book. I look forward to a reread when I'm ready to have my heart ripped out again.

CW: racism, abuse, torture, violence, gore, death, SA (off page)

Thank you to the publisher, Pantheon Books, and Net Galley for the e-arc!

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I'm still processing the impact of Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah's powerful "Chain-Gang All-Stars". Centering on two women, Hamara Stacker, and Loretta Thurwar, stars of CAPE or Criminal Action Penal Entertainment. A twisted form of entertainment in a very near future where prisoners are pitted against one another in an arena setting to battle it out to survive. Think American Gladiators with a very different outcome.
     The story of the members of the Chain pulled me in. The story OF the Chain and the system angered me. I don't say this in a negative way. The book pulls from, and has plenty of info about our gross prison system, and that should make us angry and think. It also makes you think about the huge appetite for entertainment at the expense of others and the constant 24/7 cycle of celebrity visibility we currently have. There's a thirst for blood that really needs examined. 
       There are some twists in the story of how things play out, frustration for some character's that show growth, but have nowhere to go with it. Just keep feeding the machine.
        Entertaining, thought provoking, political, dystopian, and ultimately, I feel, an importantant book to start conversations and put more eyes and minds on a huge problem. Definitely recommend adding to your list in April when it's released from Pantheon Books to read!

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What a ride… Stunning, and damning. This novel finds itself as a beautiful hybrid of Kelly Sue DeConnick’s "Bitch Planet" comic series and Stephen King’s "The Long Walk" and "The Running Man," presented with the poise and militancy of Angela Davis. The general premise is not new; blood sports have been hand-in-hand with carceral systems for as long as they have existed. And this is not some dystopian future, this is just light bending around a prism, slightly skewed from the immediate present but more prescient than speculative. In that way the world building and story are new versions of something that has been done before. Yet the powerful writing and the great plotting make this visceral debut-novel gripping and cinematic, make it still feel fresh and exciting. Yet, what really makes this story shine, its true power, is the humanity that saturates every word. Every character is given not just agency, and not just a robust and complicated personal history distinguishing them from flat, cookie-cutter archetypes, but actual humanity, frailty, divinity. It is the humanity that makes this novel succeed so wildly, and it is what also makes it devastating.

This novel has humor, action, and love, without sacrificing a ferocious commitment to the honest exploration of the regular violence we enact on each other, the deadly combination of fear and bloodlust we adopt as entertainment and hide behind hollow labels like “justice” or “public safety.” It is fun and quick to read, not weighed down by how serious and relevant the subject matter is but not holding back in its social critique.

I want to thank NetGalley and Knopf, Pantheon, Vintage, and Anchor Press, who provided a complimentary eARC. This honest review is voluntarily given.

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If you are a fan of gladiator movies, you are going to love this novel. The author has transposed the roman circus replete with plenty of blood and gore to a contemporary setting. The bigwigs who oversee the prison system have realized there’s much money to be made by offering the worst of the prison population, the murderers and rapists, serving life sentences and on death row, the opportunity to win their freedom, while becoming heroes with major brand name endorsements and huge followings, by participating in blood sports. Gender equality is a reality as women battle against women and men. The story follows the rise of two women titans who along the way become lovers.

There are the forces outside the ring, activists who protest the sport. The speeches, the pro and con arguments, the guilt and rationalizations, move the story without getting in the way, the author knows how to handle different forms of speechifying and oratory, probably learned from reading books by Ralph Ellison and George Saunders. Readers with a literary eye might also see the influence of Ellison’s battle royal Invisible Man in the author’s combats, and certainly the influences of Saunders’ fiction are heavy handed. The two of them, Adjei-Brenyah and Saunders, are tag-team partners, in the arena of fiction.

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3.5 stars

Woah. This is quite the novel. Very unique as others have said. There is a lot going on and I’m not sure I was up for the task. While I did very much enjoy this on the surface level, I think those that really take the time to read this with a critical mind will get so much more out of it.
I will give this a second read in the future as I do believe that my mind wasn’t totally invested this time around. I do highly recommend this though.

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Since I’m not a huge fantasy reader, I tend to find world building too slow, BUT, if you are going to set your book in a different world, then please give me something to work with.

In the future, prisoners travel in Chain-Gangs, competing in death-matches for packed arenas. The prisoners are lovers and teammates, and some of them are fan favorites. The matches they fight are to the death and the prisoners never know if they will make it out alive. The prisons are for profit, and these matches turn quite the profit because the American people love this entertainment.

This book was unique and brought brand new things to the table – but for me it was just bam you’re in the middle of it all without knowing what I was in the middle of. I needed some world building in this one, and I ended up lost. However, if you can just dive into new things without knowing what you are getting into, then this book is for you! This book is imaginative and really makes you think, but it does so at the expense of the reader unfortunately. I just never could get into this one, but I can see how many people will really enjoy this one. It is beautiful, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I do not possess the eye this one needs.

I am thankful to the publisher, Knopf Pantheon Vintage and Anchor, @aaknopf, and @netgalley, for this book in exchange for an honest review. Please check this one out if you are looking for something new and different in the dystopian & sci-fi genre. This one is out April 4th or grab a copy on @netgalley for yourself.

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